Have you noticed something recently?
When the stock market goes up, so does the price of oil. When it goes down, so does the oil price. (Picture from Wikipedia.)
What we’ve seen in the latest unemployment numbers is another example of what I call the oil price veto. So long as growth depends on oil, oil traders will have the power, and the incentive, to stop growth in its tracks.
The only way forward for the economy is to end the veto. You can’t do that by finding new oil. All that does is change the name holding the veto pen. The incentive will still exist to keep prices as high as possible, because as you use more of a resource it always becomes more rare.
The way to end the veto is to to harvest the abundant solar power all around us. As solar power becomes commonplace, and as it becomes cheaper than oil power, all prices will have to decline. The fact is, we can power the whole global economy hundreds of times over from just the sunlight falling in our midst. Cynics like Jim Cramer (below, from CNBC) insist this is impossible only because they haven’t yet seen a renewable technology, in a manufacturing plant, which scales fast enough to do the job.
Most solar power systems are made like computer chips. Computer manufacturing can scale, but when you’re building large panels using the technology, it scales only as quickly as a manufacturing plant can scale, not the way a chip plant does.
Thin film is seen as showing promise because such cells are created using technology derived from printing. But thin film cells are notoriously inefficient, and the process – while it seems simple – is actually quite complex, and many steps are expensive.
One solution, according to Andrew Barron of Rice University in Houston, is liquid phase deposition (LPD), which can place a reflective coating of silicon dioxide and silicon oxides onto a substrate at room temperature using a chemical bath. Barron himself has other interests (including finding the molecular key to cure HIV), so LPD was licensed to Natcore Technologies, which went public, found Chinese funding, and is now trying to scale the process up with help from Eastman Kodak in Rochester, NY.
How does Kodak enter into this? From its work on chemical film, Kodak knows how to make chemicals, coat thin substrates, dry the results, and convey that along a manufacturing line. Kodak, in other words, can help Natcore (and its Chinese partners) scale up what Dr. Barron (last seen teaching Rice engineers the basics of management) found in his lab about five years ago.
The Kodak deal is big because it might result in a new commercial process for making thin film cells that can drive the cost under 50 cents per watt, while reducing installation costs 60% with a film that can simply be layered-on existing buildings. And, since this is the last step before mass production begins, it might do this quickly.
When analysts like Cramer say solar is impossible, that it can’t scale, that only natural gas and coal hold any promise, they’re saying it because they don’t see what Natcore, Kodak and Rice see. A process like this, once developed through manufacturing, does change the equation.
What’s most important to note is that Natcore isn’t alone in this race. There are lots of other companies and collaborations going on around the world, all aimed at dropping the cost of generating solar power rapidly.
Will Natcore succeed? I don’t know.
But someone will.
And sooner than Cramer thinks.